What you can expect during treatment

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy means treatment with anti-cancer drugs given to destroy or control cancer cells. There are over 50 such different drugs.

Drugs may be given on their own or several different drugs may be given together. This is called combination chemotherapy.

Why is chemotherapy given?

Many types of cancer can be treated with chemotherapy. The aim of the treatment will depend on the type of cancer you have and how advanced it is. Chemotherapy is given:

  • To cure the cancer: chemotherapy is given to destroy all the cancer cells
  • To reduce the possibility of cancer coming back: chemotherapy is given to destroy any cancer cells which may be present in your body that are too small to detect. It is important to destroy these cells
  • To control the cancer: chemotherapy is unlikely to cure the cancer but may prevent it from growing for some time
  • To relieve symptoms: chemotherapy is given to shrink a tumour if it is causing any symptoms

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy drugs enter your bloodstream and therefore reach all parts of your body. This is called systemic treatment (most radiotherapy and surgery treatments are called local treatments because they treat a specific part of the body).

Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancer cells by damaging them so they can't divide and grow.

The drugs can also affect normal cells which are growing and dividing quickly. Damage to normal cells may cause side effects. These are usually temporary because healthy cells quickly grow back to normal.

Permanent damage is rare with most chemotherapy regimens.

When is chemotherapy given?

Sometimes chemotherapy is used on its own for cancers that respond well to this treatment. However, chemotherapy is often used with other treatments, such as:

  • Neo-adjuvant therapy: chemotherapy given before surgery or radiotherapy to shrink the tumour
  • Adjuvant therapy: chemotherapy used to help destroy any cancer cells that may remain after surgery or radiotherapy. The aim is to reduce the likelihood of cancer returning in the future
  • Peri-operative therapy: chemotherapy given both before and after surgery
  • Chemoradiation: chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy
  • Palliative chemotherapy: if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the chemotherapy drugs carried in your bloodstream can reach these cancer cells. The aim is to help relieve symptoms and slow the growth of the cancer

Chemotherapy and other medicines

While you are having chemotherapy you should tell your doctor about any other medicines you are taking or planning to take, including herbal medicines, vitamins, other dietary supplements and complementary therapies. Some drugs may interfere with your treatment.

If you are admitted to hospital, please bring all your current medicines with you. Show them to the doctor or ward nurse so they know what you are taking. Please ask your hospital doctor before taking any new medicines.

Will I be able to have vaccinations?

During chemotherapy you will not be able to have live virus vaccines. You may be able to have flu vaccines but it is always important to consult your hospital doctors before having any vaccinations.